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The Enigma of the Photograph


The Enigma of the Photograph


Lisa Stein

Does photography have an essence? What is the potential of the photograph as a form of reflection and future-directed activity? Art theorist Lisa Stein considers the nature of photography in light of the image of Aylan Kurdi, taken up by the press in September 2015. 

In a recent interview with Francis Hodgson, the critic, professor and former head of the photographic department at Sotheby’s compared photography to the Big Bang. He claimed that after its “explosion” in the mid-1850’s no one was quite sure what was ‘left in the middle’. That is to say while photography continues to influence various fields such as medicine, politics, music etc. Hodgson believes that its “core” is now in doubt. Indeed, theories that sought to define the essence of photography are manifold and conflicting, and Hodgson rightfully observes that we are still not sure what it is. However, I found his suggestion that there may not be a middle, that photography might not actually be a “thing in its own right”, discouraging. After all, my research has always been based, perhaps rather naïvely, on the assumption that there is a “middle”; in other words, I have always believed in photography in-itself, even if I am still not quite sure what that means.

Hodgson’s rather disconcerting comparison stuck with me, and several weeks later I still found myself turning his words over in my mind. I began to draw abstract diagrams of this photographic “explosion”: circles formed centres from which arrows extended into various directions, departing from, and leaving behind a void, an absence. I stared at those empty spaces for hours at a time wondering what, if anything was left in the wake of the shutter sound, the violent “shot” that has been said to extract being from the flow of time. However, other articles and abstractions soon occupied my thoughts and Hodgson’s words began to fade, much like the nebulous black lines on my whiteboard that had since been covered with clippings, booking confirmations and note cards.

Then the UK press published the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old boy who drowned after a boat carrying Syrian refugees capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. Like many other photographs in the history of traditional reportage the image, which depicted Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a beach, evoked something visceral, something ineffable. However, before I could come to terms with the photograph itself, my thoughts were saturated with the front pages of the nation’s daily tabloids, whose aggressive headlines seemed to overshadow the image; with the ethical debate triggered by decisions to publish the controversial photograph, and with the Prime Minister’s new found humanitarianism. Suddenly, Hodgson’s notion of a photographic “explosion” took on new meaning; once again, his analogy of the Big Bang was at the forefront of my mind. Only this time, I found it rather reassuring.

Since the invention of photography its essence has been sought in the past, in the history of images. This is because the act of taking a photograph, which allows one to capture a moment in time, a moment one can literally look back on, seems to be geared towards the past, and towards contemplation. However, drawing on Hodgson’s interview, I would like to propose that photography is geared towards the future, and towards action. In the case of the photograph of Aylan Kurdi, I believe its meaning lies, to a certain degree, in the events that followed its rapid circulation. However, I would also argue that the potential of the image existed before it had been taken, in the form of a subconscious thought, a thought that was “not-yet”; while the photographer could not foresee the reaction to her image, she took it with a view to the future.

Perhaps this is why photography has always eluded stable definition. It seems that before photographic thought is realized in the form of an image, it is already historical. It is already looking back. As a result, as soon as we attempt to define photography, to seek its meaning within an image, we are already one step behind. Photography never stands still; it is constantly moving, the universe of images ever expanding and with it, our theories and metaphors. I am still not sure whether Hodgson was aware of the ingenuity of his comparison; contrary to his analogy he claimed there was a limit to photography, that it had “done its work”. This is where I disagree: I believe photography “is doing”. Further I would like to suggest that the meaning of photography cannot be thought about if photography is itself a way of thinking. Finally, like thought, I believe that the meaning of photography should be sought in its potential.


Lisa Stein is a PHD candidate in the department of visual cultures at Goldsmiths. She writes on photography, philosophy and the relations between the two.